Sunday, January 26, 2020

Nightsounds’ Favorite Albums of 2019

by Dave Leonatti
nprillinois.org

Here are mighty fine albums and great songs we shared during the year….in no particular order.

Crane Like the Bird – “Crane Like the Bird”

Drummer Kyle Crane (having backed such luminaries as Neko Case and M Ward) assembles an all-star cast of contributors for this debut of propulsive pop-rock. Make no mistake, this is not a star turn showcase, but each guest readily lends exactly the right emotion and mood in each composition.

The Shins’ James Mercer sounds so at ease tossing off “Wishing Cap”, a power-pop jangler. Conor Oberst emotes the ruminative “When I See”, which ponders what age and appearance we each assume in the afterlife when we meet. Throw in a brief, plangent piano solo on “Kaleidoscope” by the jazz vanguard’s Brad Mehldau and the multi-colored star quilt is complete.

What catches you off-guard is the upbeat and affirmative sonics and tempos, masking somber reflection and gripping loss. The album is a tribute to Crane’s father, a Coast Guard helicopter pilot who died during an ocean aid mission. The powerful “Mendocino” details the crash of Crane’s father’s chopper attempting a search-and-rescue operation off the California coast. This is a short, tuneful, grieving pop masterpiece and came out of nowhere for me.

Van Wyck – “Molten Rock”

Van Wyck is a folk songstress from Amsterdam and evidently the Netherlands are fertile for the folksy observations of life. “Carolina’s Anatomy” is a facile lesson in songcraft, lithe beatbox and brushed drumset nudging the gentle tune forward – this could be right from the Piedmont in N.C. And the swaying waltz of “The Boatman Calls” wraps you in this loving extrapolation honoring a Nick Cave album title track; morphed into a call to let go. “The Ambush” floats on a bed of chiming and decaying electric guitar and piano chords – beckoning again to surrender.

Van Wyck has apparently absorbed traditional folk and singer-songwriter on both sides of the pond without slavishly aping the tropes of old school folk or Americana. The song-cycle is fresh and melodic to a fault; subtle and burnished with warmth throughout. Her voice is not stellar – breathy, calm and understated to a trembling near whisper. But the instrumental accompaniment is so professional to as to never have a hair or note out of place – unalloyed enhancement – honest and reactive to each composition.

And this is her fourth release – how did I miss her for so long?

The Highwomen – “The Highwomen”

A potent and defiant kiss-off to ‘bro country’ and the bowdlerized female-absent contemporary music C&W scene. This quartet of respected and assured ladies is of the best in the 2019 country canon. Probably not as strong or individualistic as any one of these women’s solo LP’s, yet a significant feminist statement in a male dominated realm.

Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, Natalie Hemby and Amanda Shires are all solidly ensconced as respected leaders in country, folk and Americana, and Shires suggested the melding of spirits.

The four formidable artists write confident, lyrical and traditional country tunes. “If She Ever Leaves Me” qualifies as the best gay post-modern, twanging break-up song ever – penned by Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires for Carlile.

This collection lyrically captures the feminine high ground with role reversing and gender questioning tunes like “Redesigning Women” and the title track “Highwomen” – serving notice that the boys club needs to come to grips with the twenty-first century woman.

This is “Country” country – twangy, anthemic and alcohol soaked, detailed songcraft with female-centric lyrics, well executed rootsy yet modern sonic structures and full-throated country delivery.

JS Ondara – “Tales of America”

The winner in honoring tradition and casting new crowns in the direction of acoustic roots music, Ondara’s inaugural outing presents a song cycle that washes over you as consecrated country-folk.

Technically released in late 2018, I only became aware of this fine release in early in 2019. Nairobi-born and Minneapolis based, Ondara possesses a high, lonesome alto of a tradition of the likes of Jimmy Rodgers or not quite cowboy-yodelers.

Inspired by Minnesotans like Bob Dylan, the compositions are literate, politically astute and topical and, much like Yola (herein lauded as well) rendered in uncluttered, spare acoustic backdrops – unadorned save only for his impassioned, aching but never overwrought singing.

“Lebanon” assumes a back-porch toe-tapper, plucking an insistent country lope. Ondara mines the seamy darkness of the “American Dream”. “Saying Goodbye” is a chiming and falsetto-forward heartache in three and one-half minutes. If you need a compact and conflicted summary of this nation’s immigration policies, look no further than Ondara’s experience outlined in the rending “God Bless America”. Very fine debut.

Yola – “Walk Through Fire”

Surprising to me that the Grammys even got hip to Yola’s debut (same comment for Billie Eilish’s nomination), but 2019’s “Walk Through Fire” is that perfect and modest blend of soul-country and Folk-Americana, produced with restraint by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys.

The Bristol, England born Yola blithely slides from the facile country of the title track to the gospel of “It Ain’t Easier”. In spite of the multiple influences and stylistic references, the album hangs together as a whole, as Yola’s original compositions are so rooted in tradition – not slavishly so, that the old school recording techniques and song cycle strike as genuine – not usury.

What I love is how she lovingly delivers the songs with the right volume and emotional acuity – no false-screaming or over-emoting. Quite lovely and affecting.

Andrew Bird – “My Finest Work Yet”

Here is a man with something to say about our times; and he seems to be betting, at least pleading, that the artists will help recycle, if not beat the semi-automatic weapons into ploughshares; that the beauty and cultural riches of our world will defeat hate and close-mindedness. But he is a realist.

Bird has always been defined by his inventive violin playing and penchant for whistling (plenty of that), but here he is a controlled and emotive singer. “Bloodless” is the standout track, citing “an uncivil war, bloodless for now”, hedging that things can and may get worse. “Fallorrun” is typical of the album, citing free will in the midst of our American tumult; a driving rocker that lets the listener decide for himself/herself and neither goading nor browbeating.

Unlike many of his previous recordings, which have been more folky; earthy – this cycle is a tad modernized – a spot of polish but a more clangorous, open and echoey, live in the studio aesthetic, brimming with reverberating drums. And though Bird in the past has been self-conscious and subtly cloying, he seems more at ease here- finding a middle ground between the head and the heart; his fussier intellectualization subsumed by an ease of presentation and hummable, impactful songs.

The lyrics of “Archipelago” say it all: “We’re locked in a death grip and it’s taking its toll – when our enemies are what make us whole. Listen to me; No more Excuses, No more Apathy. This ain’t no Archipelago – no remote atoll”.

Also Noted: Individual Albums and Songs of 2019 that need some love………

Jessica Pratt – “This Time Around” – Reverb swathed girly voice Pratt captures intimacy and pain on this standout track. From the terrific ‘Quiet Signs’ LP.

Aldous Harding – “Fixture Picture” and “The Barrel” – Her penchant for wearing enormous hats on her videos aside, New Zealand’s Harding marries obtuse lyrics to hummable, accessible tunes.

Joan Shelley “The Fading” – So pure a folk voice, and the admonition to heed nature in the face of our global environmental crisis – from the sterling “Like the River Loves the Sea”

Catherine Maclellan – “Come On In” – A musical treasure in Canada – daughter of songwriting royalty, Maclellan’s new record is lovely

Jesse Harris – “Out of Time” – A slinky, sexy nylon guitar driven vamp. From the equally appealing “Aquarelle”.

Cactus Blossoms- “Got a Lotta Love” – The duo continues their Everly Brothers fetish – but a tad more contemporized with soft electronics and B3 organ underpinnings. From “Easy Way” album.

Billie Eilish – “I Love You” – Not sure I am as crazy over the entire “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go” as the Grammy committee, but this is such an atmospheric, touching song. Oh, the dis-affected youth…..

Keb Mo – “Oklahoma” – Fulsome and accessible pop-blues with great assistance from star folks like Robert Randolph, Roseanne Cash and Taj Mahal.

Richard Hawley – “Midnight Train” – Been a fan since guitar-for-hire/Pulp six stringer started his solo career. Solid outing “Further”.